Norman Rockwell, beloved American painter and illustrator, has landed a long-term presence in the Tampa Bay region. We have had special exhibitions of his works that came and went in a few months, but an extended loan from an anonymous lender puts one of his paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg for an unspecified time.
Rockwell (1894-1978) was famous for the Saturday Evening Post covers he created from 1916 to 1963. For most of those decades, they represented an America of our aspirations and imaginations, one in which goodness and simple truths and values were an assumption of daily life. He also depicted relationships in poignant, sweet or humorous ways (sometimes all three at once).
Untitled (Two Gentlemen Sharing a Pot of Coffee) embodies all the virtues of Rockwell's style. He employs a symmetrical composition even though the two men are of different builds, and includes details that ask us to linger longer over this seemingly straightforward work. There is no context for this scene, no sense of their being at home or a restaurant. The difference in the men's size is subtly emphasized by the closeness with which their chairs are pulled forward and by the sturdier one's inability to pull in enough to get his side of the tablecloth under the table. The slighter man lifts his cup with an outstretched pinkie finger. Both are dressed to the nines, including wearing spats. Their knees touch, forming an inverted V. It's mirrored by a V formed from their upper body posture, culminating in their clasped hands.
None of these elements is accidental. But the sheer charm of the main characters' portrayal downplays these details. We know we're looking at a good painting, we're just not sure why.
Rockwell didn't invent his subjects. They usually were people in his town whom he used as models, and they sometimes reappear in different works. Jerry Smith, interim director of the museum and chief curator, hasn't yet found specific references to the two men's identity. In his research, he did find the same men in other works, both individually and together. He likens them visually to Abbott and Costello.
"One of them was in a Saturday Evening Post cover," he says.
They also appeared in other works together, drinking coffee, he says. The Rockwell Museum labels them simply as Maxwell House but doesn't specify if they were used in ads. Rockwell supplemented his income with illustrations used in advertising, including coffee companies, so Two Gentlemen was likely used in one or was perhaps associated in some way with one of them, especially since other coffee-themed paintings were created around the same time.
For all the earnestness of his paintings, Rockwell could have a sly subversiveness. He chafed under the conservative mandates of his Post editors, who told him, for example, that people of color could only be portrayed as servants.
So is this work of two dandies holding hands a cheeky reference to men who were described back then as "bachelors for life"?
I doubt it.
Rockwell's social conscience seems to have developed later in his life, which is one reason he jumped from the Post to Look magazine in the 1960s. And he never painted something that alluded to homosexuality; it wasn't discussed and, even if he had views about this taboo subject in the 1930s, he wouldn't have made light of it, especially when he was using as his models men who were probably known in the community. This for me is a painting, like so many others by Rockwell, that makes us wish for a world that never was.
Contact Lennie Bennett at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.